Sarkozy heads to Syria for Mideast peace talks

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit on Wednesday is the first by a Western head of state since the 2005 murder of Lebanese ex-premier.

3 September 2008

PARIS -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday headed to Damascus on the first visit by a Western head of state since the 2005 murder of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri left Syria isolated.

Sarkozy's two-day visit - for bridge-building talks and a four-way summit to promote peace negotiations between Syria and Israel - was the latest step towards restoring ties frozen after the killing of Hariri, a close friend of Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac.

The French leader, who will dine with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad Wednesday ahead of joint talks with regional mediators Turkey and Qatar Thursday, said France and Syria were key to Middle East peace.

"As I told President Bashar al-Assad when he came to Paris on July 12, the path of peace in this region passes through our countries," he told Syria's Al-Watan daily, which is close to government circles.

"Syria can provide an irreplaceable contribution to solving Middle East issues. It is important that Syria plays a positive role in the region."

The visit marked an important new step in drawing Syria back into the international fold after years out in the cold, six weeks after Assad made a comeback on the world stage in Paris.

"Today there is a new era between Syria and France based on France's new policy, a realistic, pragmatic policy that is aimed at achieving peace and that calls for dialogue," Assad told French TV on Tuesday.

Assad has called on France and the United States to mediate in negotiations towards a peace accord between Syria and its historic foe Israel, which are holding indirect negotiations with Turkey acting as go-between. The fifth round of talks is expected to be held in Ankara on Sunday.

On Thursday Sarkozy, whose country holds the European Union presidency, will join a four-way summit on the Syria-Israel issue with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

Negotiations broke down in 2000 over the fate of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognised by the international community.

Israel urged Europe to exercise utmost caution in dealing with Damascus, without referring directly to Sarkozy's visit.

"Europe must be very careful in its relationship with Syria as that country opens up," foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told AFP Wednesday.

"Except for a slight change in tone, Syrian policies have not changed," he said, charging that Damascus "continues to support terrorist organisations" - a reference to the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

But in Damascus, Al-Watan columnist Ghassan Yusef praised Sarkozy's "clear"  approach to cooperation with Syria, saying the French president "understands the Syrian position" both on Israel and Lebanon.

Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon two months after Hariri's death, ending three decades of domination of its small neighbour.

The election of Lebanese President Michel Sleiman in May and the decision to establish diplomatic relations between Beirut and Damascus for the first time opened the door for a resumption of top-level ties between France and Syria.

Syria's official Tishrin newspaper predicted an "excellent and positive outcome" to Sarkozy's visit, both for regional security and ties with Europe.

"After a careful examination of history, the French leadership under Sarkozy has realised that Syria is key to the Middle East and to solving its regional issues," agreed the ruling party newspaper Al-Baath.

"France knows now that American pressure on Syria does not and will not serve peace."

Both Paris and Washington accused Syria in 2005 of orchestrating Hariri's assassination in a Beirut car bombing, but while Sarkozy has moved to end the country's isolation, the United States continues to blacklist it as a sponsor of terrorism.

[AFP / Expatica]

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